There is now one less place for Iraq’s Christians to call home. Since the U.S. military-led invasion in 2003, the country’s minorities have watched as their places of worship have come under attack and the prospects for practicing their religion without persecution have become increasingly grim.
Now, the Islamic State armed group has solidified its grip on the northern city of Mosul and imposed a deadline over the weekend demanding Christians either convert, pay a tax or “face the sword.” With that ultimatum, thousands of Christians fled, leaving most of what they own behind. They made their way to Erbil in the Kurdish-controlled region in the north, as well as the Christian city of Qaraqosh, southeast of Mosul, and also under the protection of the Kurdish peshmerga.
“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” said Patriarch Louis Sako, one of Iraq’s senior Chaldean Catholic clerics.
The events over the weekend drew concern from the Vatican and anger from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said the Islamic State and its “aggression against the churches and houses of worship in areas under their control reveals beyond any doubt the extremist criminal and terrorist nature of this group.”
“Those people,” Maliki said, “through their crimes, are revealing their true identity and the false allegations made here and there about the existence of revolutionaries among their ranks.”
Pope Francis offered prayers on Sunday for Iraqi Christians who “are persecuted, chased away, forced to leave their houses without the possibility of taking anything with them.”
People living in Mosul reported that the fighters had already taken over churches and homes of those who had recently fled. The moves from the group and its affiliated fighters are only the latest of its stated aim to create an Islamic Caliphate in what is now a hotly contested territory that runs through Syria and parts of Iraq.
While the practice of “jizya” — historically a tax on military-aged males who were not Muslim — had faded by the 20th century it was still being applied by radical groups around the world. The Taliban reportedly imposed it on Sikhs in 2009, and the Muslim Brotherhood only last year levied it on Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The Islamic State-appointed governor of Mosul reportedly put the price for jizya at $470 per family. The group reportedly did the same with Christian residents in the Syrian city of Raqqa earlier this year, ordering them to pay half an ounce of pure gold in return for their own safety.
Along with Christians, other minorities not falling into line will also come under threat, and Iraq has several groups adhering to very old religions. The country’s north is home to the Yezidis, a sect that worships an ancient religion with links to both Islam and Zoroastrianism, and their holiest site lies just north of Mosul. Turkmen are predominantly Sunni Muslim, but largely secular. Iraq also has a population of Sabean Mandeans, a sect that follows John the Baptist and believes water is the essence of life. Before the war they numbered some 60,000 in Iraq. Today fewer than 5,000 remain.
The war on other religions is just one aspect of the Islamic State and its determination to establish its radical rule in the area. In Syria last week, the group reportedly stoned a woman to death for adultery. There were reports too, earlier this week, of an edict from Islamic State leadership ordering all women be circumcised. Female genital mutilation is illegal in many countries where it is practiced, and in 2012 the United Nations General Assembly adopted several resolutions calling for the procedure to end.
The Islamic State and its affiliates have called for Prime Minister Maliki to step down as they threaten to attack and take Baghdad, while around the capital Shia militias have converged ready to fight any advancing fighters. Iraqi government forces have struggled to reclaim predominantly Sunni territory lost to Islamic State fighters while Iraqi politicians grapple to overcome differences and form a new government.
So far, a speaker of parliament has been appointed and a new president is expected to be named in the coming week. Once that person — likely to be a Kurd — is decided, the clock will start ticking on the choice for prime minister. Maliki has refused to give up the possibility of another term, saying his party won more votes than his opponents. But his State of Law coalition may decide to nominate a different candidate as part of a compromise that would give his party the majority and the numbers to form a new government.